It would be truly ironic if the Federal Election Commission should interpret a law that is premised on the idea that information is the best antidote for corruption in a manner that would impede the most democratic form of dissemination of information ever invented. This is precisely what the commission stands to do if it attempts to mechanically apply its existing regulations to the Internet.
No aspect of political campaigns, from fund-raising to disclosure, remains unaffected by the Internet. Two major presidential candidates already have requested the commission's advice on a broad range of questions related to their Internet activities. Several complaints based on the use of the Web have been filed, and more can be anticipated. The FEC must provide answers, but those answers will prove inadequate if it fails to recognize the uniqueness of the Internet.
The Internet changes politics. On the Internet, every woman and man is a potential publisher. There is no class distinction between the elite and the common person. The raw egalitarianism of this new frontier appeals to the American spirit. Here the hope lives that the force of an argument can prevail over the might of the pocketbook. One need only visit the Web page of a sophisticated high school student to see how slim a technical advantage media giants enjoy.
Certainly the drafters of our federal election laws in the 1970s had no notion of the great power and leveling effect of this new medium, then largely unknown. Similarly the FEC, in adopting implementing regulations, had no idea how those rules would apply to this form of publication. For example, the commission's regulations provide that the republication of any materials provided by a candidate would be deemed a contribution subject to limitations. How is this regulation to be applied today to the Web sites of every major presidential candidate, where visitors are invited to download and distribute information? A mechanical answer simply will not satisfy the needs of an electronic citizenry.
The fact that the Internet knows no borders also presents a problem for the FEC. Foreign Web sites that expressly advocate election results are available to our citizens but beyond our regulatory reach. Should these persons enjoy a broader right to publish than their American readers? I do not believe anyone would seriously argue that we should adopt the Chinese government's policy of blocking offensive Web sites.
On a practical level, it is beyond the capabilities of the FEC to be the Web police. Use any well-known search engine and search for the name of a major presidential candidate. The results will be in the millions and will change instantaneously. Some of the identified sites will be operated by children, others by major media outlets. Some will cross our existing regulatory lines, others will skirt them. Effective enforcement will be impossible, and penalties will be random. Knowledge of our own limitations should itself serve as a caution.
Our focus should not be on potential abuses. Information itself poses no threat to our political system. Of course information can be distorted and abused, but the best remedy for questionable information is more information. Therefore our goal should be to encourage, not discourage, this new form of political participation.
In regulating the Internet, we should seek to unleash its promise. Only such regulation as is absolutely necessary to achieve the core purposes of the law is merited.
The writer, a Democrat, is a member of the Federal Election Commission.